17th Sunday of Ordinary Time - Practicing Eternity

Today's Gospel is taken from the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John. This one chapter of the New Testament contains the deepest Eucharistic theology in scripture, the chapter of the Bread of Life. It begins with the multiplication of loaves and fish, told using the same words that Jesus uses in the other Gospels when he institutes the Eucharist. 

This miracle-event is followed by an in-depth study of the Bread of Life and finally concluded by the call to faith and the disciples' response: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the Words of Eternal Life." This story of the feeding of the five thousand is found twice each in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, once in Luke and once in John. It is, In fact, the only miracle recorded in all four Gospels - today we listen to the event as it is described by St John.

In all these presentations Jesus takes the bread, breaks it, and gives it to the disciples. These same words are used at the Last Supper - words we hear repeated each time we celebrate the Eucharist together. However, there is a particular focus in the Gospel of John. In John, Jesus has a tremendous compassion for the people whom he sees as hungry and in need of nourishment.

In the Gospel John, all of Jesus' acts are "signs" - sacraments that point to a deeper reality. Jesus sees our weaknesses, our tendencies towards selfishness, anger and pride and he understands how we long to become very different than we are. He sees our mortality and our longing for eternity. He sees the hungry crowd and moved with compassion, he rouses the disciples to their feet and he feeds thousands.

Jesus takes the loaves, gives thanks and distributes them to those reclining: friends, strangers, even enemies. John was reminding his community, and us, "Remember who God is, a nourishing, strengthening, traveling companion who uses bread to draw people together to form a caring community, who in turn feeds the hungry and the needy.

People have good reason to feel hungry and afraid today. Poverty, racism, climate change, and so many other injustices are causing real suffering for much of the world. Only with faith do we have the ability to understand the reality of what is, and the possibility of what can be.

The miracle of the loaves and fishes shows Jesus' deep concern for those around Him. He recognizes their need and from a few loaves and fishes produces an abundance to fill the hunger of the multitude. This event is a kind of precursor of what is to come. However, today's Gospel story speaks a much more powerful message.  

There is always something more to what we perceive to be Jesus' message.  We are called and the same time we are sent forth.  We are forgiven only to forgive others in the same way.  We are fed, only to feed.

Jesus makes a claim only God can make: He is the true bread of heaven that can satisfy the deepest hunger we experience. The feeding of the five thousand shows the remarkable generosity of God and his great kindness towards us. When God gives, he gives abundantly - He gives more than we need for ourselves that we may have something to share with others, especially those who lack what they need. God takes the little we have and multiplies it for the good of others.

A few phrases come to mind from the Tao te Ching, the 5th century BC work by Lao-Tzu: "Seeing into darkness is clarity. Knowing how to yield is strength. Using the inner light, we can return to the source of light. This is called practicing eternity."

What has this to do with today's reading? Well, maybe everything. The past, present, and future become one in Christ Jesus. In this Bread of Life, the Eternal God, mortal man, and the history of our salvation through Him, come together - here and now. Every time and every place become here and now.

Christ has called us to follow him. And in the continuing miracle that we celebrate in the Eucharist, he is teaching us how to practice eternity, giving us the nourishment we need to yield inwardly for the sake of God and neighbor, and just for a moment, giving us the vision and experience in the present of what our eternity can be.